Posts Tagged Novels

The Disheartening Draft

I finish another draft of my book. I sit down to read it through. I expect rough spots, and there’s a ton of setup information I need to drop in. I have character discontinuity; I need to match up some of the second tier cast from the beginning, with the end, and vice versa. There are motivations to clarify, logistics, technical stuff, and science, all needing to be figured out.

But here’s something I did not expect. Chapter three, which I had previously liked, which I thought performed a function in the story, appears to have absolutely no reason to exist. It is pretty horrible. It needs to be tossed. The only good news is that I know what needs to go in its place. But I have to start over, completely.

Chapters four and five are a kick in the gut. Here, characters basically walk around in circles spouting nonsense to each other. Worse, it’s prissy, stilted nonsense. I thought I was setting a scene here, and setting actions in motion. I was doing no such thing. This is just awful, and I have to start over.

Chapter six is a relief. There is meaningful action, and there is relationship between the characters. Whew. But those awful patches make me very sad. I knew the draft was rough, but I thought I was in the ballpark. Turns out I was five miles down the freeway from the offramp leading to the parking lot of the ballpark.

I cannot stay in this disheartened state, so I have a talk with myself. When your characters walk around in circles spouting nonsense to each other, it only means you don’t quite know yet what needs to go there. It is placeholder material. It doesn’t make sense yet, but it will. Those characters, in that setting, will matter. Look at it again in coming days, and you will know what goes there. Your characters will talk sense. They will become interesting. You will feel something. You will no longer feel like throwing the chapter on the floor for your cockatiels to chew and poop on.

In the meantime, focus on what’s good in the draft. Focus on how much you’ve learned about the characters, their motivations, and how they all play together to make a story, or even a part of one.

I wish it weren’t so much work, and at the same time, I’m glad it is. Easy things are forgotten. Difficult things have sticking power.

I rarely go back to read my own published work, the short stories, the blog posts, anything. Sometimes, on the occasions I do, I cringe. But more often I am filled with a quiet satisfaction. Hey, I think, that’s not too bad. That doesn’t suck. I like that. And I’m glad I stuck it out.

"Editing was much easier when manuscripts were made of paper!"

“Editing was much easier when manuscripts were made of paper!”

Photo courtesy Martha A. Hood. All rights reserved.

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Keeping It Moving

In a previous post which I will not look up and tag, I believe I cited some advice from writer Laurel Winter, who (and I’m going to go for a paraphrase here) said she made a point to work on her project every day, no matter what else was going on, no matter if all she could do was two sentences. Two sentences, she said, was her minimum. Two sentences was enough to keep that project in her mind, to keep the flow going. And, when she had more time, she could thereby avoid the “…awkward getting-reacquainted time…” required to pick up a project after a long break.

Good advice. Keep the flow going, and–in a mixture of metaphors–you’ll keep the pot simmering on that back burner. Metaphor #3: I think of a shark who never rests but is always swimming. A quick Google check indicates that thing about sharks perpetually on the move isn’t entirely true, but it’s a great image. Keep moving, keep the flow going, and keep the pot gently burbling.

Keeping it moving (or gently burbling) is necessary to keeping one’s attention, and I’m speaking of writer, not the reader. Nothing will ever appear before the reader unless it first makes it past the writer. If the writer becomes disengaged from her own work, the work will wander and fizzle.

I set aside two hours a day to work on my novel. If I am prevented from doing two hours, I do an hour and a half. Can’t do an hour and a half? Do an hour…and so forth. No day exists when I cannot do two sentences.

Let’s make that two paragraphs. No day exists when I cannot do two paragraphs. I can do something else as well: I can give myself my next assignment. Before I set down the work, I can look at the next two paragraphs and think about what might be next. I don’t actually have to compose them, I need only toss them in the burbling pot. When I return after a day, they will be at least partially cooked.

The alternative to keeping it moving is to get stuck. Getting stuck puts one at risk for writer’s block. When I am stuck (in the middle of my second paragraph?) I need to find a way to get moving again.

There’s no magic answer, but there are tricks. There are things I can do that are not unlike shaking out my arm when it’s numb from being slept on wrong. There’s nothing perfect or precise.

If I have a problem moving forward, what is the problem? Why am I stuck? Let’s say I need to get my character to the moon, but I want him to have a different reason for going there than the plot turn that actually happens. The reason I currently have for his going there seems stupid, leading me to feel like a Bad Plotter. In another situation, I suddenly realize I am not a biologist and my alien biology is therefore really stupid. I do not believe in my own science. My alien needs to be in more scenes, but I keep avoiding talking about it. I keep writing scenes where the characters seem to be in denial about the alien in the center of the room. Or…I’m tired and impatient. I want to get to action and dialog, but need to set up the scene first. I don’t want to set up the scene. It’s boring. It’s hard. I don’t seem to be able to imagine anything, and can’t seem to describe anything. The sun was shining. Her eyes were blue. I am a Lazy Writer and there is No Hope For Me.

In the third situation, being stuck on description, I simply close my eyes. I relax. I let the movie in my brain roll. I open my eyes and quickly write down anything I see, hear, feel, or smell. I do not judge the quality or appropriateness of what I write. I think as little as possible, except to prompt myself to remember to include all the senses, not just what I see. (Just out of scene, a spigot opens, a shark swims, and a pot simmers.)

In the case of the I-don’t-know-my-science-from-squat problem, I have resources. I can do research, and I can ask a biologist. I know some, as it happens. Find out what I need to know. Or sometimes, the very lack of knowledge can give me a whole new idea. My alien in the middle of the room? Hey, that sounds like a great SF absurdist play! Maybe I can work that into my story. (Just out of scene, a fish comes out of the spigot, the shark eats it, and an octopus jumps into the stew.)

Plot problems are usually easier than they look. There are always choices, different paths one can take, especially if–as in my example–I know where I’m going, i.e., the moon. If my character has no good reason for going to the moon, well, maybe he’s kidnapped. Why not? (The water scalds, the shark is arrested, and the pot boils over. The paths keep diverging.) Once it’s down on paper, I can trust the boiling-over pot to know what should go in it, and what should not.

My stories all flow better than the Santa Ana River.

My stories all flow better than the Santa Ana River.

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I Think I’ve Finally Gone and Done It

More accurately, I’ve almost finally gone and done it. Specifically, I’ve completed an almost-readable draft of a novel. This is something I have wanted to do since my mid-twenties, and seriously began to try to do in my thirties. Do the math, but I’m kind of old to be a first novelist, although not the oldest, to be sure.

So, why did it take so long? There was nothing external to overcome, no life problems that any other writer might face. No, the problem was in me–let’s call it a partial writer’s block–but that is a simple term for a rather complex process.

My big hang-up was the plot. I couldn’t seem to make one, not 60-80,000 words worth. Short stories? Sure. As long as it’s short enough that I don’t have to outline.

At novel length, you get into the details. Novel length allows for subplots, all of which affect all the other main and subplots. It can feel overwhelming. Characters have a lot of time to develop. I cannot seem to develop them in an outline. I can’t get to know them well enough without making them play the entire scene.

An outline happens at a distance from me. Conversations are muffled…more than that, I can’t hear them at all; it’s as if I’m being forced to lip-read. The setting is like a 1950’s B movie; the scenery is obviously a sheet hanging behind the actors, and the spaceship is just as obviously a cardboard model being dangled by a string. An outline should be like a map, a scaled-down representation of reality, the reality being the novel. The main guideposts–highways, rivers, cities, and towns–are left in, and the small and unimportant  things are left out, but you can get from point A to point B, from the beginning to the end.

I tend to get confused as to what is important, and what is not. I make bad plot maps. I set off on my journey with my characters, and halfway through, we are totally lost. I have no idea why I began this in the first place. The outline seems stupid, I can muster no feeling for it. I have tried force-marching my characters along anyway, but have ended with something I hate, that makes no sense, that is unreadable, that feels utterly generic.

I need to see my characters in action in order for them to pop into full dimensional color and sound. This means I usually undergo a series of drafts in which my characters say pointless, flat stuff, and walk into walls. I have no idea what I’m doing. I have a mess of unmotivated actions and idiot dialogue. In a short story this is okay. I throw the mess down on a table and look at it, as a whole. You can do that with thirty pages, pretty easily. No matter how bad it is, no matter how hopeless it seems, I can, usually, find some part or parts in the crippled narrative that rings true, that bears some relation to my original inspiration. I keep that, and throw away the rest. At that point, I’ll have a revelation or two regarding characters, plot, and often in particular, the ending. I then rewrite it, and throw away less the next time. The third draft is usually readable; the fifth, submittable for publication.

Doing the same at novel length is daunting, because I can’t keep all the people, places, and events in my head the way I can a short story length. Yes, I know novelists keep big massive files for all the details. I’ve tried that. But I can’t decide the details of my universe until I’ve actually written it. It starts to come out all false. Everything a writer is supposed to do to finish that crucial draft–make an outline, keep copious notes–I cannot seem to do.

But this time, I finished the draft. How?

My tale is science fiction, set about eighty years in the future, in an artificial habitat near the moon. That much I came up with about sixteen years ago. That, for the most part, was where it stopped. About five years ago, I realized the habitat, although quite large, created a “closed room” situation, which suggested, strongly, that my tale should take the form of a murder mystery.

I enjoy mysteries, and I’ve read enough of them to know the formula. Oh, I couldn’t stand up and give a chalkboard lecture on the subject, but I realized it was a form I knew intuitively. To be certain, I pulled a few mysteries off my shelf to deconstruct. I could not bring myself to write an outline of my story, but I did write a twenty page synopsis. Even that was horrible, because although I knew the relationships between the main characters (and therefore discovered pretty quickly who the murderer had to be), I did not know (for instance) the cause or means of death. It was enough, however, to start writing.

My first draft (although that is a generous term for it) was about two hundred pages. My second, still not readable, was three hundred-ish. My third, the almost readable one just completed, is four hundred. The final third still doesn’t make much sense, but it gets me where I’m going.

I wonder if it’s a variation of dyslexia, this inability of mine to deal with outlines. I don’t like pie charts or spreadsheets much either. I react to them the way some people react to spiders. I recoil and cover my mouth. My heart starts to race. I have an urge to flee.

It is possible getting through plotting a novel once will allow me to get through it in the future. I hope so, as I have a short list of novel ideas I’d like to try. Or it may be the key is merely accepting my process. Perhaps, the more I try to use the dreaded outline, the more trouble I’ll cause myself. Perhaps I need to trust my own method.

 

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